Cary Village Board votes to deny harassment investigation findings

Trustees vote to repudiate investigation of claims against Cosler

The atmosphere inside the Cary Village Board chambers alternated minute by minute from courtroom to grade school classroom to local government sitcom.

The special meeting – scheduled to discuss a resolution denying the findings of a third-party investigation into one trustee’s harassment claims against anotherspanned almost two hours Wednesday night and opened a new chapter of infighting that continues to divide a board that has been at odds for years.

In response to the board’s back-and-forth bickering, the audience swelled with cheers, jeers and – at times – laughter.

By the end of the meeting, the board voted, 4-2, in support of the sole item on the night’s agenda: “repudiating the Callaway report and condemning use of taxpayer funds for politically motivated investigations.”

Trustees Jim Cosler, Kim Covelli, Jennifer Weinhammer and Jeff Kraus voted yes, while Trustees Christine Betz and Ellen McAlpine voted no.

Earlier this year, the village hired Oak Brook-based law firm Engler, Callaway, Baasten & Sraga to conduct an independent investigation into claims made by McAlpine against Cosler.

McAlpine alleged that Cosler’s behavior for more than a year had been “unwanted, derogatory, unprofessional, disrespectful, libelous and defamatory in nature.” The subsequent report from attorney Lisa Callaway cost the village $4,800 and backed up some of her claims.

But the approved resolution called the report “unauthorized, baseless, prejudicial and political.”

‘I’m sort of on trial here’

At times, the innards of the chamber felt like a courtroom, complete with cross-examination and arguments from all sides.

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but it seems like I’m sort of on trial here,” Cosler said at one point. He quoted a Sept. 14, 2017, email from McAlpine: “I have nothing adverse to say about you, and in fact, believe that you and I are in agreement for the most part.” 

“Absolutely,” McAlpine said. 

“So what’s the problem, Ellen?” Cosler said. 

“I don’t know, you tell me, Jim,” McAlpine said, and pockets of residents in the audience burst into laughter. “What’s the problem? I agree wholeheartedly – what is the problem?” 

“You know,” Cosler said, “I proposed to [village administrator] Jacob Rife earlier today, I said, ‘You know, if she just admits I didn’t harass her, we’d be done with it.’ ”

People in the audience jeered.

The seating chart debate

The resolution claimed that Cary Mayor Mark Kownick rejected Cosler’s attempts to have the board’s seating chart changed so he would not have to sit next to McAlpine.

“This isn’t third grade,” Kownick said. “If you don’t want to sit next to somebody, go sit somewhere else. Trade with someone else. I don’t care, sit in the audience. I don’t care. It doesn’t make a difference.”

An exhibit of the resolution included citations of emails Kownick sent to Cosler. One said: “Frankly, where everyone sits during a 60- to 90-minute meeting is really irrelevant.”

McAlpine said she had no problem continuing to sit next to Cosler.

“I’m not going to be bullied into moving my seat,” McAlpine said. “If you want to move your seat, that would be your decision.”

“No, it wasn’t my decision,” Cosler said. “It was the mayor’s decision.”

The seating chart exchange drummed up snickering and laughter in the audience – a reaction Weinhammer condemned.

“You guys are all laughing, but this happened at the beginning of the election. [Kownick] was very controlling and telling everyone where they were going to sit,” Weinhammer said, “and it’s fine, but if Jim’s asking for a new seat, I don’t see why he can’t have a new seat. So you guys think it’s so funny? It’s not really funny.”

‘He declined to meet’

Cosler called the report a “total political attack” full of “unsubstantiated” claims and said he never was given a chance to share his side of the story.

Callaway made multiple attempts to meet Cosler to conduct her investigation of McAlpine’s claims. Cosler would not meet with her unless he first received more information, including a copy of the complaint and a copy of the code he was accused of violating.

“I am aware of your desire for a meeting,” Cosler wrote March 6. “I requested specific information pertaining to this issue. To date, I am not in receipt of the requested information.”

Callaway summed up her interactions with Cosler: “I repeatedly reached out to village Trustee Jim Cosler (on Feb. 16, 18 and 21 and March 2) for the purpose of scheduling a meeting,” she wrote, “but he declined to meet and requested advanced details on the subject of my investigation and other related documents.”

Callaway did not respond to Cosler’s last email.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Kownick asked Cosler how many times the investigator reached out to him.

“I believe it was four [times],” Kownick said.

Covelli called the report “unauthorized” and cited a section of the village code that rules the administrator cannot enter any contract without approval of the board.

Another code allows purchases of up to $20,000 without approval of the board for repairs, maintenance, supplies, projects and equipment.

Village attorney Scott Uhler said village code authorizes Rife to commission a harassment investigation.

The village has initiated similar investigations in the past, Rife said – but never against an elected official.

‘The snitch’

Trustees sparred over who might have provided the Northwest Herald with a copy of the documents detailing the harassment investigation.

Covelli said she wouldn’t be surprised if Kownick leaked the reports, and Kownick denied it, as did every other board member.

Cary resident Robin Engles attacked McAlpine’s character for filing a harassment complaint and told the board to investigate who released the report to the public.

“As a woman in business, I have taken more crap than you can ever imagine, but I have a backbone. I go to them and I talk to them. I don’t hire lawyers. I don’t put it [onto] paper. I don’t try to ruin someone’s reputation at all,” Engles said. “I think that it is extremely important that we do find out who the snitch is around here that would let that out to the paper. We really should find out, at least, who can be trusted.”

Cary resident Cassie Pinter read about the harassment investigation in the Northwest Herald.

She said she was at the
Dec. 19 board meeting when McAlpine alleged Cosler acted in a “derogatory” and “unprofessional” manner. She attacked Cosler’s mispronunciation of McAlpine’s name at past board meetings and said it’s his duty to learn how to say the name of the people he works with.

“Do what you need to do, vote how you need to vote,” she said. “Repudiate the report. It doesn’t repudiate the behavior.” 

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